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Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church

Category Articles
Date August 30, 2005

“Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church” (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2005) is a new book written by Don Carson.

The Emergent (or Emerging) Church is hardly a dozen years old and already it is has reached a level of considerable importance. Indeed, it is argued that the term is out of date; it has already emerged! Its hydra-like nature makes analysis difficult-an inevitable consequence of a postmodern child. After all, how do you critique something along logical and analytical lines which regards itself by definition as beyond rational analysis? Devotees of the Emergent Church regard labels of categorization as part of the very culture it is reacting against and therefore irrelevant. Analysis, however, is what we need, and into the fray jumps the ubiquitous D. A. Carson (is there an issue where Carson is not an authority?). The book, some 200 pages, is a tour de force in reasoned, informed debate giving us the best and most comprehensive summary of this movement to date.

In eight chapters Carson covers all bases: historical analysis (what caused the birth of the Emergent Church), cultural critique (Carson’s analysis of post-modernity is itself a brief and succinct guide to what otherwise can prove to be a quagmire), personality engagement (Carson takes on the heavy-weights, Brian McLaren [A Generous Orthodoxy] and Steve Chalk [The Lost Message of Jesus] and finds both wanting), and biblical analysis (we’d expect no less from a Biblical scholar of Carson’s reputation).

At its heart lies the belief that changes in the culture (post-modernity) necessitates a new, or emergent, church. Old creeds and liturgies no longer communicate and a new language is needed, an eclectic hodge-podge of ideas and forms borrowed from a variety of sources reflecting the disparate nature of the world in which we now live. Carson thinks that many pastors and church leaders have been thinking this way for some time but only now give voice to their ideas, falling into line with what the likes of McLaren, Chalk and others (like Mike Yaconelli and Spencer Burke) have said and written in well publicized books which claimed a move from “absolute to authentic” (p.15).

Reacting as it did to the mega-church mentality of growth at all costs, the move to suburban middle-class (where the chief concern was how to park all those SUVs!), the Emergent Church is best illustrated by Spencer Burke’s website, Burke intends this to be a place where “the various parts of the faith community are like mercury. At times we’ll roll together, at times we’ll roll apart. Try to touch the liquid or constrain it, and the substance will resist. Rather than force people to fall into line, an oozy community tolerates differentiates and treats people who hold opposing views with great dignity. To me that’s the essence of the emerging church” (p.19).

All of this is painfully familiar as symptomatic of postmodern culture-that no opinion is to be refused no matter how off the wall it may sound. Orthodoxy has a difficult time in such an environment and is quickly labeled as opinionated, intolerant, and narrow. Slippery as postmodernism is to define, Carson gets at its core in suggesting that it is an issue of epistemological crisis: how do we know (or more subtly, how do we think we know something). Modernism-analytical, rational, absolute, is replaced by postmodernity-what we feel to be true, what we collectively hold to be true without asking whether it is true for everyone in any objective sense (p.75-76).

Enter McLaren and Chalke. Carson examines Brian McLaren’s writings, noting how dependent he is on the work of Jonathan Wilson and David Bosch. What McLaren tries to avoid is the Scylla of absolutism and Charybdis of relativism. Avoiding absolutism is easy: who, after all, lives by absolutes any more? Certainly not the church of the twenty-first century! Avoiding relativism is not so easy. McLaren knows that as a Christian he cannot honestly suggest that there are no absolutes at all. Carson suggests this is McLaren’s (and for that matter, the emergent church’s) Achilles heel.

Carson is relatively gentle in his criticisms-though no less tenacious. He questions the analysis offered of contemporary culture and postmodernism in particular. McLaren is hardly alone here. I recall all too well a colleague informing a group of some fifty seminary professors that no one understood postmodernism correctly and he would give the definitive analysis! Cultural analysis is a difficult thing to do and it is not surprising that many think McLaren and others have got it wrong.

Carson offers a more mediating view of the Emergent Church’s analysis of evangelicalism’s use of Scripture, suggesting that McLaren and others are merely (!) suggesting that their findings are now out-of-date rather than wrong. In the last analysis, Carson finds the Emergent Church in danger of submerging itself beneath the very culture it proposes to analyze.

Two chapters of considerable interest conclude the book, one which considers biblical passages and its claims of absolute truth and another which considers the appropriate place for experience in its relationship to truth. These are worth reading apart from any consideration of the Emergent Church.

An admirable summary of the Emergent Church then, commendable in its spirit and rigor; but beware when he smiles for he wields a knife!

Taken with permission from the current edition of Reformation 21

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